BALTIMORE – After dark on a day when it has rained, Tim Hoen ventures into the woods. He carries no flashlight, but wears a self-designed head lamp made from an old construction helmet, freeing his hands to pick up frogs, salamanders and other creatures.
“I’m the kind of person who will go out at midnight or two o’clock in the morning and walk through mud and look at ponds,” Hoen says.
“I see so much more than what most people see, and I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”
Hoen, 42, is president of the Maryland Herpetological Society, a group of more than 100 fellow enthusiasts which he joined in 1969.
On a visit to the organization’s headquarters in a three- story row house on Charles Street, he becomes engrossed by containers of rocks, sharks’ teeth, dead lizards and frogs, insects and birds — many from years ago.
“You never know what you are going to find here,” he says.
Throughout his life, Hoen has enjoyed and studied nature. He breeds reptiles, insects and rodents at his Harford County home. And he actively works to protect the environment, especially for reptiles. (See accompanying story.)
“I always wanted to do things that made a change for the better,” he says. “I really wanted to … leave my mark.”
Hoen’s father, Len, jokes that his son’s enthusiasm for nature began “when he was a week old.” Tom Dembeck, a friend since high school, says the seed “was well rooted at 14, and it has continued to grow.”
“Typical-Tim scenarios,” as Dembeck calls them, provide illustrations:
– Hoen’s mother, Jean, smelled something foul in Hoen’s room when he was about 5. Under his bed, she says, were “two boxes that I thought were shoes. The snakes were in there…. They were dead.”
– During Hoen’s teens, his parents returned from a vacation to find a cage for his pet black vulture, Turek, taking up “half of my backyard,” Len Hoen recalls. The state Department of Natural Resources eventually called a stop to the illegal zoo.
– And then there was the chicken-house gang, Hoen’s term for the friends who helped him rebuild a run-down chicken house to shelter their skunks, racoons, snakes and owls.
– Out driving, says Hoen’s wife Diane, “he’ll just slam on the brakes, just because he wanted to check out a dead animal on the side of the road.”
Today, on his two acres in Jarrettsville, Hoen keeps his animals in a specially lit and heated building, which he constructed. At 4,500 square feet, it’s “like a small warehouse,” he says, adding that the electric bill can be “as high as some people’s mortgages.”
Hoen sells animals to the public — at prices ranging from a corn snake for $15 to an Australian lizard called a blue-tongued skink for $250.
He advocates breeding more animals in captivity. “If you continually collect breeding adults out of the wild,” he says, “the populations are going to die.”
While he has attended community colleges, most of his knowledge comes from experience. One friend of 15 years, Jack Cover, curator of rain forest exhibits at the National Aquarium, says Hoen “tends to rub elbows” with professionals who study science and animals.
Cover says Hoen is innovative. When they caught turtles together, Hoen waded through water wearing a head band of tiny branches. He looked like “a mass of plant and debris floating by,” allowing him to get close enough to grab the unsuspecting turtle.
For about 10 years, Hoen has earned his living as a research technician at Johns Hopkins University, in what he jokingly refers to as “the sex lab” — the Department of Biophysics.
He believes the work contributes to solving environmental problems. “We’re trying to make better contraceptives for women. We’re trying to make it so cheap that we can give it away to third world countries,” he says. “That’s one of the keys to helping any problems of the world — stabilization of population.”
On Earth Day, April 20, Hoen will give presentations at the National Zoo in Washington.
And he still returns to the Boys Clubs of America summer camp he attended as a youth, to teach new generations of children. He also gives slide shows at schools and various organizations in hopes of inspiring audiences “to look at nature through different eyes — not like something to conquer, but something to understand … to say, `hey, I’m part of this too.'”
When it comes to putting on shows, “he’s still got a lot of kid in him,” his old friend Dembeck says.
But not everyone understands that. When he wanders the woods at night, Hoen confesses with a chuckle, “I get in trouble by the police.” When they realize what he’s doing, Hoen says, officers respond: “`You’re a grown man. You’re looking at frogs? What the hell’s wrong with you?'” -30-